Saturday, May 29, 2010

RE: Edward III - Authorship

Vere-ing off course,

I wish I'd included the small joke I'd intended about having a pool for how long it would be before one of us ripped into the authorship controversy. But I was thinking of an over/under number in terms of responses to my original e-mail. Not in terms of minutes. Derek wins.

I'm going to agree with Derek in principle, then explain why authorship matters. Ron Rosenbaum wrote, in his article "The Double Falsehood of Double Falsehood," "The point is not who wrote Shakespeare (though I'm entirely convinced Shakespeare did) but what Shakespeare wrote, and what is falsely passed off as Shakespearean. The 'someone else wrote Shakespeare' types (and those who waste time arguing with them) are sad and pathetic because, frankly, life is short and if one has to choose between rereading King Lear or Othello and arguing about who wrote them, then one's priorities are profoundly misaligned. Any amount of time spent on the latter is subtracted from the former, alas."

When it comes to Edward III, I think we'll have a richer conversation if we focus on what is happening in the text or, by extension, what might happen on the stage. Every year that I teach Shakespeare, at least one student asks if Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him. And I give a version of Rosenbaum's response. Now, I'll add a bit of Derek's attitude as well.

But that said, I read Edward III with that question firmly in the back of my head: did Shakespeare write this? This is a question to which there is no definitive answer; asking it, though, leads us to an important form of assessment. Let's separate, for a moment, Shakespeare the man from Shakespeare the body of work. Then we must ask ourselves what makes the body of work unique? And finally are those attributes we've identified present in Edward III?

Why would we do this? Because to be able to do it means we recognize the essence of Shakespearean texts. Not the plot or the storylines or even the famous quotes, but something deeper -- the identity of the language. The question of whether Shakespeare might have written Edward III is the ultimate test of our familiarity with his work. By "familiarity" I don't mean that we have read it all and know it from memory; I mean that we have become familiar enough with the character of his writing that we know it from what it is not. Consider for a moment a more mundane version of this: the blind taste test. I have students who swear they can tell Pepsi from Coca-Cola. I like to pour a few colas (usually adding others like RC or Jones) into unmarked glasses and see. I'm impressed when they actually can. It means that they're familiar enough with the subtle differences in flavor that they "know" their colas. I want to know Shakespeare like that, because absent that familiarity, that understanding, I wonder if I really know "Shakespeare," as opposed to his fame. If I ripped a passage from a Shakespeare play you haven't read yet, maybe Coriolanus or Cymbeline, and one from Peele, one from Marlowe, and one from Fletcher, and sent them to you blind, could you tell who wrote which? Does it matter?


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